One of the frequently asked questions librarians ask themselves in collecting comics boils down to: how do I classify my collection?  How do I make the organization and labeling clear, easy for both patrons and staff to find?  What can I do to work within the limits of the physical space I have?  What do I do with manga?  Superheroes?  Nonfiction titles?

We recently had a question sent in about how to best arrange a large comics and graphic novel collection in a public library. 

Right now in the children’s area, we have all our graphic novels and comics by title (or series title if there is one). I would like to re-arrange them so we have Manga (by series or by author), Superheros (by character name or by Universe + character name, i.e. DC – Batman, and all Other graphic novels & comics – by author. Currently the collection numbers 1,600 items, and we probably purchase about 160-200 titles a year. If we have different shelves, the spine label must be different enough that a staff person could see exactly which shelf it goes on.

Do you have any suggestions or advice?

A Children's Librarian

At a public library

I’ve gathered together a group of we NFNT staff to talk about collection organization, including current systems, what we see as best practices, and the variations that can work in different institutions.

How do you have your graphic novel collection organized currently? 

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Katie

In our smallish branch library (about 60,000 volumes), we have approximately 2,200 volumes of graphic novels, separated equally between juvenile material and YA/adult. Juvenile graphic novels are shelved prominently, right next to new releases. They are shelved alphabetically, usually by author or occasionally by series title. This section houses everything from easy reader style graphic novels to the Amulet series. Our adult/teen graphic novels are shelved near our study area. They are separated into nonfiction, fiction, superhero titles, and manga. We use color coded tape on spines (and shelving notes in the catalog) to differentiate between subsections.

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Matt

When I worked in a public library, we had our childrens’ GN and teen GN collections separated into their own special areas. Adult GNs were filed among the books in our Adult Fiction collection, which was not separated out according to genre. The three sections were in different physical areas of the library and numbered roughly 2000 volumes altogether.

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Shannon

 I work in a public library system with 30 locations. I’d say there’s probably 500 total young adult titles, combining manga and comics, and slightly more than that with the adult graphic novels. Our collection floats between branches, so that’s not a solid number unfortunately. I have the manga and comics separated physically, on different sections of shelving for the adults and on different small bookshelves for the young adult. Both adult and young adult have manga organized alphabetically by series title; comics are separated into two sections, with Marvel & DC organized alphabetically by character, then the independent comics organized alphabetically by author. Juvenile is handled by the children’s librarian, and she has all juvenile graphics interfiled by author.

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Robin

I work in a public library, and we have three locations — all with graphic novel collections for every age range: children’s, tween, teen, and adult. We have around 12,000 (distinct) titles but many more volumes. For example, our Teen section alone at our main location has 2,400 volumes.

The four sections are set up in each audience’s spaces, and at this time all of the collections are organized the same way. All graphic titles are shelved separately as a collection with three major, color-coded sections: graphic, manga, and super. Each section has a color label featuring the section letter that goes at the top of the spine: G on a green background for graphic, M on a pink background for manga, and S on a red background for super. These colors were chosen to not duplicate already used colors in our labeling, and we include the letters to make sure it works even if the colors don’t jump out at a patron. Any age range stickers (Tween and Teen) also go at the top of the spine.  The titles are then classified by title or character first, then the first word or words of a subtitle added, plus the volume number if needed, on a label at the bottom of the spine.  Nonfiction graphic titles are integrated into each section and classified by title.

What is the logic behind your current classification set up?

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Katie

The juvenile graphic novels are shelved where they will be highly accessible. Because it is a smaller collection, all types and genres of material are shelved together. In the YA/adult section, graphic novels are separated into smaller sections (superhero manga, etc.) to enhance browsing and “findability.”

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Matt

The idea was to keep the graphic novels separated according to reading level and age-appropriate content.

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Shannon

The spatial separation is partially because we do have a small teen space and want to encourage it as a space for them and their materials, and the adult graphic novels are with the rest of the adult fiction. Separating manga and comics was something I did when I came to the branch because I felt it made things easier to find for manga fans, who generally know the title but not the author. It also made finding all of one character, like Batman, easier, since he’s been written by a few different people at this point.

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Robin

In the past we had different systems depending on the audience and selectors while also taking physical space into consideration at each location. Three years ago all interested parties (selectors, catalogers, and our Head of Collection Development) got together to come up with one system for all age ranges and locations.  Our goal was to be clear and easy to understand from a patron point of view while also being consistent so that our technical services folks could catalog and classify titles consistently.  Creating a consistent procedure makes each section familiar as patrons age up as well as makes browsing easy.  Our patrons were already expressing a preference for being able to browse only manga or superhero titles, and we hoped that separating out the graphic would also keep those stand-alone titles from getting lost amid the long runs of manga and superhero titles. Also, manga is most often of similar size, as are superhero comics, and thus shelving them together means we can shift our shelving height to best suit those sizes.

Do you like the current system you have?  If you could change one thing, what would it be?

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Katie

For the most part I believe our system works very well. One thing I would change would be to intershelve nonfiction and fiction graphic novels. So many graphic novels are a mix of fiction, history, autobiography, and folklore that I think the division between fiction and nonfiction is not a very useful one.

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Matt

I would have liked to separate out the adult fiction section by genre and have a separate graphic novels section, as with the children and teens, as I feared the adult GNs got lost in the shuffle. Of course given the content complaints and challenges we got on the teen graphic novels, that may have been intentional on the part of my bosses. Still, it was an improvement on when I first got there and all the graphic novels were in a single section, with Watchmen shelved next to Babymouse! 

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Shannon

I’m not completely happy with how I have the independent comics organized compared to Marvel & DC, because I think it’s confusing for people less familiar with comics. Otherwise, I like it!

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Robin

I am very pleased with our current set up!  After many years of the system being less consistent, it’s wonderful to have a collection organization that really encourages browsing.  For me, the ultimate point is clarity — I want patrons to be able to find what they’re looking for without needing to ask us, and this system is both aesthetically clear on the shelf and easy for patrons to parse.

One issue that crops up for youth services librarians is what to do with extremely popular creators, like Raina Telgemeier, who write stand-alone titles. In our current system, they are shelved by title, so it means her titles are scattered throughout the collection instead of next to each other.  However, at this point most kids know which title they’re looking for, and ask for them by title, so up to now this hasn’t been a barrier to patrons finding the titles.

Do your readers like the set up?  How do you know?

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Katie

We don’t receive a lot of feedback overall about our shelving practices, so we don’t have a lot of information about this. Our graphic novel collections circulate well, so we feel confident about our system. Sometimes we do need to orient new users to our layout, but once patrons understand it, they seem to easily find what they’re looking for.

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Matt

I never heard any complaints about it, apart from adults having no idea we had graphic novels filed among the general fiction.

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Shannon

I’ve gotten positive feedback from patrons about the change to manga who remember how it was organized before, and when I explain the comics usually they appreciate it.

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Robin

We’ve had a lot of patrons who are long-time comics browsers let us know how much they like the new system, especially the manga and superhero fans.  In observation, I’ve also noticed how much more easily readers find the graphics section, including nonfiction tities.

Are there other systems you’ve seen or heard about that you think work particularly well?  Why?

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Katie

With the caveats I’ve mentioned, I haven’t seen other systems that work better. One option I’d be interested to see in practice is separating out more advanced Juvenile titles from younger ones.

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Matt

The LCC method of sorting graphic novels works well, in my experience.

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Shannon

Not that I can think of, though I’m always looking for more and better ways to organize them.

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Robin

I think a lot is defined by your physical set up — limits on shelving and separate collections are so varied across libraries. I definitely understand that classification is impacted by those limitations.  I am lucky to work in a library that gives us the space to have multiple collections, but I completely understand if some arrangements are not feasible because there just isn’t the room.

In an ideal world, how would you set up your graphic novel collection for your patrons?

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Katie

In an ideal world, we would have the physical space to shelve much more of our graphic novel collection face out. Our space is always limited, and graphic novels are tight on the shelves. Face out shelving is a great way to encourage browsing and trying new things, and I think it would also increase circulation.

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Matt

I think separating the books based on age level is essential in a public library, if only for ease of organization. However, I like the LCC practice, which allows for series to be sorted by volume number without worrying about the author’s or artist’s last name. If possible, I’d favor a hybrid approach that would separate out graphic novels according to age range but sort them within those sections according to series, title and creator.

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Shannon

Ultimately, I’d love to have graphic novels all by series (since of course there are series outside of Marvel & DC), then have it alpha by author within the series, for all comics. Manga I think really does best being organized by series.

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Robin

The one thing I wish we could do to make it easier for patrons is to somehow convince mainstream superhero publishers to 1) title series in a way that makes them distinct and 2) keep up a logical volume number run.  With our current system, we’ve been able to separate major character runs (example: SPIDER-MAN Miles versus SPIDER-MAN Peter), but the repetition (or lack) of series names and restarting volume runs makes our major superhero comics sections a bit of a mess.  We have way too many BATMAN vol. 1 volumes, and keeping them in order by subseries feels like a losing game.

If you could give this librarian any two pieces of advice, what would you say?

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Katie

I would take a careful look at how kids and families are using the collection before making a decision. Think first and foremost about what will make it easier for them to find what they are looking for, rather than what makes most sense in your mind. When we have done this, we’ve always ended up making shelving systems simpler rather than more complex.

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Matt

However they ultimately organize their books and manga, I would suggest creating unique spine labels for each section – preferably different colors. The biggest challenge I ran into with my collection was having teen comics shelved in the children’s section because I used two spine labels to denote JUVENILE and GRAPHIC NOVEL and one spine label for GRAPHIC NOVEL in the teen area. The nuance was lost on many of our volunteer shelvers, unless I specifically instructed them on how there were two sections where graphic novels went. I could have saved a lot of trouble had I just printed off a unique Teen Graphic Novel spine label that looked different from the juvenile sticker, but my boss at the time thought that was a bigger waste of my time than having me explain the labeling system to each new volunteer.

Beyond that, I would make sure their system is simple enough that all the staff, even the ones who do not track graphic novels, can understand it and navigate it.

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Shannon

Spine labels will definitely help, whatever your choice: they’re key to not just reinforcing the shelving decision for staff who shelve and find books, but makes it easier to identify at a glance how the collection is organized. If you want to add identifying stickers on top of that (YA or Juvenile, that kind of thing) it might help if your library already uses these kinds of stickers. Also, it’s definitely worth your time to talk to your staff about the change and encourage them to ask questions if they’re confused so they feel involved in the process. 

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Robin

I want to emphasize Katie’s points about talking to and observing how your patrons use the collections and note what’s working as well as what’s creating confusion, and be led by those observations. Nothing is more important than your readers being able to find what they want.  To that end: make sure your catalog listing matches the spine labels! Nothing is more confusing than a mismatch between where your catalog says a title is and where it physically is on the shelf.

Check your own biases. If you’re already a comics fan, try to look at your collection as if you aren’t.  If you aren’t a comics fan, try to think through what fans want as well as what novice readers want and strike a balance.  If you are used to adult comics, understand that there may be different needs for a kids comics section, and vice versa.

Keep it as simple and clear as possible. While you may need to train your patrons to understand a change to a new system, if you have to put up a sign forever that explains how your shelving works, then that system fails.  You shouldn’t have to include additional signs or primers for shelf organization — it should be comprehensible to your patrons as is. I definitely agree with Matt’s point that you should also always check with your shelvers — they too may need to learn a new system, but if it’s too confusing or complicated for the shelvers to learn, then it’s too confusing for your readers.

We hope this installment of Ask the Comics Librarians has given you all some ideas about how to best organize your collections.

Have a question about comics, graphic novels, manga, and libraries?

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  • Robin B.

    | She/Her Teen Librarian, Public Library of Brookline

    Editor in Chief

    Robin E. Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. She has chaired the American Library Association Great Graphic Novels for Teens Selection List Committee, the Margaret A. Edwards Award Committee, and served on the Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She is currently the President of the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table for ALA. She was a judge for the 2007 Eisner awards, helped judge the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards in 2011, and contributes to the Good Comics for Kids blog at School Library Journal. She regularly gives lectures and workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime at comics conventions including New York and San Diego Comic-Con and at the American Library Association’s conferences. Her guide, Understanding Manga and Anime (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), was nominated for a 2008 Eisner Award.

    View all posts
  • Katie

    | She/Her Youth Services Librarian, Hopewell Branch of Mercer County Library

    Reviewer

    Katie Chase is a Youth Services Librarian at the Hopewell Branch of Mercer County Library in New Jersey. She specializes in Readers Advisory and arts programming. She is a mother of two and an exile of New England whose favored genres are mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and women’s fiction.

    View all posts
  • Shannan

    | She/They Teen Services Librarian, San Antonio Public Library

    Features Writer

    Shannan waffled between English professor and librarian as career choices for all of college; eventually librarian won. She is a Teen Services Librarian with the San Antonio Public Library. When not running TTPRG games for their teens or teaching them how to bake, she's doing what she can to promote comics to anyone who will listen. At home they're likely deep in the middle of their latest cosplay project or watching B movies with her husband, while generally pushing the cats out of the way.

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  • Matt

    | He/Him Librarian

    Reviewer

    A librarian with over 10 years experience in public and academic settings, Matthew Morrison has been blogging about comic books for nearly as long as they’ve had a word for it.  Over the past two decades, he has written regular columns, commentary, parodies and reviews for such websites and blogs as Fanzing, 411 Mania, Screen Rant and Comics Nexus.  He has served as an Expert in Residence for a seminar on Graphic Novels and Comics for Youth and Adults at the University of North Texas and has given several lectures on the history of comics, manga and cosplay culture at libraries and comic conventions around the country. In addition to his work for No Flying No Tights, he is the Contributing Editor of Kabooooom.com and maintains a personal blog at MyGeekyGeekyWays.com.

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